Tracks in the Sea: Matthew Fontaine Maury and the Mapping of the Oceans

9780071368261: Tracks in the Sea: Matthew Fontaine Maury and the Mapping of the Oceans

A great story of discovery and adventure in the tradition of Longitude

Maritime navigation remained largely a matter of guesswork until well into the 19th century, and making a voyage meant following a series of all-too-often disastrous hunches. Changing that became the lifelong obsession of the brilliant, irascible geographer Matthew Fontaine Maury, whose career both aided and mirrored America's rise as a maritime power. With his controversial appointment as the first superintendent of the U.S. Naval Observatory in 1840, he at last found his life's work. While others built railroads across the trackless interior, Maury mapped the highways of wind and current over the previously trackless sea. In Tracks in the Sea, Chester G. Hearn uses Maury's career as a window on the 19th century, including the brief but glorious clipper-ship era of the 1850s, the rise of steam and steel, the Civil War and the destruction of the U.S. merchant fleet, and the points of intersection with some of the most colorful and influential people of the time, including presidents, congressmen, military leaders, scientists, explorers, merchants, and writers.

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From the Back Cover:

Tracks in the Sea captures a rich yet little-known chapter in the history of seafaring--the mapping of the oceans by Matthew Fontaine Maury, the father of modern navigation and ocean science.

Voyages in the early 1800s were risky endeavors. Navigation was uncertain. Chronometers were a new technology, and only a few navy ships and wealthy merchant vessels carried them. And route planning was a hit-or-miss affair. Knowledge of prevailing winds and currents had advanced little since Columbus. What lore existed was mostly anecdotal. There were no "highways" on the seas, and hundreds of ships were lost each year. The cost in property and lives was enormous.

Maury changed all that. In a brilliant eighteen-year effort between 1842 and 1861--driving himself and his staff with relentless curiosity, ambition, adventurousness, and altruism--he mapped the oceans' great surface currents and wind systems and showed shipmasters how to shave weeks or months from voyages. His career coincided with the ascendance of America as a maritime power and with the culmination of the Great Age of Sail. In a world interconnected by maritime commerce, Maury's work was critically important not just to America, but to all nations.

Tracks in the Sea traces the arc of Maury's remarkable life from his birth in 1806 on a hardscrabble Virginia farm, the seventh of nine children, to a navy career culminating in the superintendency of the newly created U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington. Self-taught and self-made, as passionate in his condemnation of bureaucratic incompetence as he was in his scientific explorations, Maury earned great admirers who would help his career and great enemies who would strive to sabotage it. With the outbreak of the Civil War, he abandoned his life's work to offer his services to his native South. Though despised by Southern leaders (including Jefferson Davis), Maury contributed the pilot and track charts that played a critical role in the Confederate raiders' destruction of Union shipping.

In this vivid biography, Chester Hearn rescues a unique and fascinating man from the obscurity to which he was consigned after the Civil War. In Tracks in the Sea, Maury's career is a window both on the history of seafaring just prior to the age of steam and steel, and on a tumultuous century in a young nation.

The Remarkable Story of a Seafaring Pioneer

In eighteen years of sustained and inspired labor, drawing on the logbooks of sailing ships from around the world, Matthew Fontaine Maury transformed the oceans from trackless hazards into a network of highways marked by dependable winds and currents. No less than the invention of the chronometer, the pilot charts and wind and current maps of this self-taught genius from a Tennessee farm revolutionized ocean travel. At the height of his productivity in 1861, he abandoned his career at the U.S. Naval Observatory to join the Confederate war effort.

Now this vividly rendered biography resurrects the life and work of an extraordinary man. In tracing Maury's intellectual odyssey and the dramatic conflicts of his life and career, Chester Hearn shows us a fascinating era in seafaring and in the history of a raw young nation.

About the Author:

Chester G. Hearn, retired vice president of a subsidiary of Combustion Engineering, is an avid amateur historian and the author of eleven books about U.S. military history between the American Revolution and the Civil War.

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